My husband and I had dinner last week with another couple, friends of ours expecting their first child(ren), twins, and expecting them soon. As we joked about the wife’s swelling feet and widening girth, (and the good fortune that her husband is strong enough to hoist her off the couch), I notice beneath her overt anticipation of the blessed event(s), the covert exhaustion she was hiding. An unmasked expression crossed her pretty face, just for a moment. One that only a gestating woman in her last weeks would understand, one that said, “Please, God, let this be over. Right now.”
In sisterly solidarity I immediately flashed back to pregnancy, a state both magical and miserable, completely consuming; a transformative rite of passage. In the nanosecond it took to relive, the realization that I’d never actually be pregnant again descended on me with finality. I will never again grow a child inside my body and I’m not sure how I feel.
Coworkers, friends and family all seem to be doing it: multiplying and replenishing the earth. Pregnant women surround me, their ripening bodies nurturing the genesis of life where there was only potential. No matter that women have been giving birth since the dawn of time, each new miracle astounds me.
I won’t experience an unseen little stranger rolling underneath my rounded belly, pushing me from the inside (and in the case of my youngest, punching me), proclaiming their presence with every hiccup and jab to my ribs, staking claim to my heart long before their grand entrance. I won’t bring a brand new person into the world, someone who didn’t exist before, but without whom I’d be incomplete. That part of my life is over. Chapter closed.
It’s not about wanting another baby — twinges of longing for a tiny human, swaddled and sweet smelling have been replaced by relief over no more diapers or colic or projectile vomit. Plus, after a bit of waffling, the decision to be done was made after my third baby, though the fourth did not get the memo.
No, this is about discovering myself past childbearing age, about acknowledging my progression from maiden to mother to crone. What is this ambivalence, and why does it feel like loss? Possibly because fertility and youth are intertwined; I’m no longer fertile therefore no longer young? But perhaps it’s more about seeing the journey from birth to death as a one-way trip, and feeling time, like a strong gust of wind, pushing me forward.
The first time a child split me wide open, body and soul, I found purpose. Fragile, yet resilient, so new, yet so familiar, I held, in my arms, the answer to every question; the meaning of life itself. And each time I cupped a small rounded head and inhaled the intoxicating fragrance of newborn skin I was reborn. Changed. I simply do not know who I would have been had I not been a mother. The archetype has imprinted my identity so as to affect all other relationships; all paths taken and not taken.
Bearing evidence of birthing and breastfeeding four babies, my body has lost the elasticity to reshape itself. My psyche still grapples with maintaining a separate sense of self while giving my children my whole self, an inescapable urge. But, though I may disparage my life or wish briefly for something different, I know I wouldn’t trade the sacrifices made for the indulgences gained.
At 31, a divorced mom of two school-aged children, I remarried with hopes of a second chance at the happy family I’d always wanted. I dreamt of more babies to cradle. After a miscarriage, at 36, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl with thick red hair, milky white skin, and Trisomy 21, Down syndrome. The initial shock of her diagnosis was surprisingly short-lived. Bringing gifts, her presence was cause for celebration. She taught me to slow down, breathe, and stop long enough to find stillness. She taught me the richness of a simple life. She taught me contentment. And her younger sister, despite the 99.9 percent effectiveness of birth control, was born when I turned 40. She teaches me… patience.
Mothering is nothing if not an exploit of extremes, and for every Hallmark moment there are 200 ‘Suck it up, you’re the Mom!’ moments. Like being eight months pregnant and worried sick over an absent teenager, hours past curfew, before cell phones. Like weeks of hospitalization with a two-year-old in critical condition. Like night terrors at 3 am with a delirious 7-year-old. Or apoplectic meltdowns in the supermarket and shoes thrown from the back of a minivan. Or Sesame Street and Teletubbies on video loop. Or pet salamanders and pet mice and pet birds, who still poop, even though they’re small. Like all things educational; relentless forms and meetings and bureaucracy, from kinder to college. Like sleep deprivation that lasts for years, and new appliances that last five minutes, and endless sticky messes.
Babies are akin to kittens; adorable at first, but quickly turning into cats. Adoration got me through midnight feedings, hysterical crying, and explosions out both ends. Devotion gets me through the rest: dirty dishes, dirty faces, dirty clothes and dirty rooms. Through broken bones and bruised hearts. Through whatever it takes to get my chicks from here to there, to their moment in the sun, when I, their biggest fan, cheer loudly, “You did it! I knew you could. I knew you would!”
I’m not a perfect mom. Far from it. I lose it on a regular basis (my sanity, my temper, my grip). My kids drive me right over the edge, but I love them with a ferocity bordering on psychotic. I don’t think I’m unique. Mother-love, the most powerful force in the universe, can save the world and I wouldn’t swap it for a stunning body or a hundred trips to Europe or a life of leisure, even on the days I swear I’m this close to selling my offspring to the highest bidder. On the days I need a reminder, I replay in my mind a particular night I put my youngest, the one who defied the odds, to bed. Not yet 2, she’d overheard me referring to her unexpected arrival on the planet as I often did by way of an affectionate nickname. Most likely, I’d had a rough day, since every day’s a challenge when you have toddlers. Presumably I wanted to get her down and escape to a glass of wine. As she nestled close for a kiss she said, “Mama? I you bonus baby, wight?”
Oh, yes. A bonus. Something extra. Much more than I bargained for, the challenges of motherhood were impossible to foresee, but equally unknowable were the profound rewards. And its infinite nature; a mother doesn’t stop mothering when her children are grown. In my mother-in-law’s soothing voice over the phone as she reassures her son, a middle-aged man, is the love of a mom for her little boy. Across the miles, in an email, my mother’s words carry a tender caress to me, her daughter, the mother of grown children herself.
There will be no more babies, at least not from my womb. Someday in the not-too-distant future, the babies of my babies will christen me Grammy or Nana or Gran. The thought is surreal, yet, enchanting. When the child of my child is placed in my arms, I will lean in close and press my cheek to that precious face, so new, yet so familiar. I will inhale the intoxicating fragrance of newborn skin and look into soulful eyes seeing generations past and future. And in the sacred hush I might hear heaven whisper, “This is the meaning of life.”